Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: Many Waters by Madeleine L'Engle (1986)

 Sandy and Dennys Murry come into their parents’ lab from the winter cold wishing for warmer conditions. The next thing they know, they have been whisked away to a strange place where the sun is hotter than hot, the people smaller than average, and the wildlife consists of creatures like mammoths, manticores, and unicorns. Though each of the boys temporarily succumbs to heatstroke, when they are well, they each realize they have landed in Biblical times just before the story of Noah’s ark takes place. Though they have been cautioned by seraphim not to meddle too much with history, they can’t help but love some of the people they meet and wish to save them from their inevitable fate in the great flood.

I have such a hard time settling down to read the books in the Time Quintet. I always breeze through the Austin books, and even the ones about Polly O’Keefe, but the stories in this particular series are always just outside of what my literal mind likes to explore. It took me especially long to get around to this book because I disliked A Swiftly Tilting Planet so much, and I was concerned that this next book would be equally as disappointing. As it turns out, I wasn’t completely off the mark, but Many Waters was more enjoyable than I expected.

I like the way L’Engle incorporates Biblical story with fantasy. I had to do some research as I was reading to remind myself which characters were truly named in the Bible, and which were invented by L’Engle, but that is a testament to my poor knowledge of the Bible, and not a flaw in the story. In fact, I think it’s great that this book treats the reader intelligently and encourages him or her to read the story of Noah’s Ark and to think more critically about it. I think the religious aspects of this book are what kept me reading, even when I was rolling my eyes about shape-shifting angels who turn into pelicans and scarab beetles, and unicorns that don’t exist, but only “tend to be.” (I just can’t help but laugh at these things. They are equally silly in and out of context.)

I also like that this book is about the twins, and that it focuses on them as individuals, rather than as part of their larger family. Though this isn’t strictly a coming of age tale, I like the way the two boys are changed by their experiences in the past, and I like that they, who are normally so literal-minded, are able to accept the strange events they witness. It made it a little easier for me to swallow some of the fantastical elements - probably as easy as it will ever be for me to do so. It was also sort of a relief to be free of the “specialness” of Meg and Charles Wallace that has so dominated the other books.

Some sections of this story are very well-written, but others are poorly put together. Sentences like this one, for example, could benefit from better editing: “By its light, which was brighter than the moonlight, which had moved beyond the roof hole, Sandy could see that the girl, who wore only a loincloth, like Japheth and Grandfather Lamech, was gently curved, with small rosy breasts.” I couldn’t help but feel like I was reading an entry in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. This might seem nit-picky, but there were so many moments where I felt like L’Engle was over-writing, trying to say in twenty words what she might have said in ten, and I find that annoying and distracting.

If I were ranking the Murry, O’Keefe, and Austin books in order of preference, Many Waters would fall near the bottom of the list, but not at the very end. I can respect the book as a thoughtful meditation on a Biblical story. I just wish I understood the reasoning for all the fantastical elements, as sometimes it seems like L’Engle includes these things just because they sound cool. I am also left wondering why the manticore and unicorn didn’t make it onto the ark - I was sure L’Engle would at least explain that much, but she never did!

Just two more books to go before my L’Engle reading exercise is finished: An Acceptable Time and Troubling a Star.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book Review: Wanted... Mud Blossom (1991)

In this conclusion to the Blossoms series, both Mud and Mad Mary are in a lot of trouble. Mud has been accused of eating the class hamster that Junior brought home from school, resulting in a full criminal trial. More seriously, Mad Mary has gone missing, leaving her cane and the bag she uses to carry animal carcasses behind on a trail in the woods, with no indication as to where she has gone. While Vern and Michael tease Junior, and Maggie and Ralphie sort out their romantic feelings, Vicky Blossom worries about what to wear to impress her own newest suitor, and Pap investigates Mary’s disappearance in the hopes of helping her out.

In some ways, this is the lightest of the five Blossom books. Even though Mad Mary is missing for much of the story, none of the Blossoms themselves are in true danger, and the events that take place surrounding the apparent loss of Junior’s hamster are more comical than dire, even if Junior takes them seriously. The mock trial the family stages for Mud involves everyone, including most of the previous books’ supporting characters, and though the trial is mainly a silly thing, it does highlight the varied relationships between the different characters and their feelings for each other.

In Kirkus’s 1991 review of this book, the reviewer noted that “there's no reason to single out a best Blossom book” and that turns out to be absolutely true. Each book holds its own as a strong single entity, but also works nicely as part of the tapestry of the larger series. The characters remain consistently loveable and well-developed throughout each of the stories, and each one receives the happy ending he or she deserves. This last book isn’t the most emotional of the series - I think A Blossom Promise, where Pap nearly dies, probably wins that title - but there is still something so satisfying about the way the family and their friends interact and come together in each other’s hours of great need. This book- and indeed, this entire series - is not to be missed.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Friend by Sarah Stewart (2004)

Annabelle Bernadette Clementine Dodd (“Belle”) has busy parents who are hardly ever home, but she is lucky to be good friends with the family’s housekeeper, Bea, who is always there for her, especially in a moment of great danger.

The pictures tell us what the text does not - that Belle is a Caucasian child, and Bea is an African-American woman. They also give us a wonderful sense of Bea’s personality. Her facial expressions reveal her fierce love for Belle, her amusement when Belle makes a mess, her tiredness at the end of a long day, and her heartbreaking sadness at the thought of losing Belle, as she nearly does at the end of the story. The final illustration, accompanied by a short verse, also tells us a lot about Belle as an adult, as we learn that she is looking back on her memory of the important day Bea saved her life.

There is a lot to take away from this book, and I think the richness of the language and the beauty of the story would be best understood and appreciated by kids who can discuss those aspects a little bit. What Bea does for Belle - and the fact that it remains with Belle until adulthood - is a great way to open up a conversation about heroes and true friendship, and I think the emotional ending will resonate with kids old enough to appreciate the subtlety of the book’s final pages.

Readers who have enjoyed other Sarah Stewart / David Small collaborations will find similar themes in this one. It’s also a nice read-alike for some of Patricia Polacco’s titles, where she also looks back on her childhood and remembers the adults who shaped her

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reading Through History: A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985)

Harriet Morton, the daughter of a Cambridge professor, leads a very sheltered life. Her father and aunt Louisa both want her to be a dignified young woman and someday marry a stuffy entomologist named Edward Finch-Dutton. Harriet wants something else- to dance. When she is offered a spot in a dance company traveling to the Amazon, her family forbids her to go, but unable to stand her oppressive life any longer, she defies them, sneaking off to become a ballerina. In the ballet company, Harriet meets girls with much more life experience than she has, but she manages to hold her own, becoming friends with her fellow dancers... and falling in love with Rom Verney, the owner of the opera house where the company performs. Everything would be perfect for Harriet, if only her father weren’t coming to find her.

Though it took me longer to get into this book, I wound up liking it almost as much as The Dragonfly Pool. Eva Ibbotson has such a way with words, and the audiobook narrator, Patricia Connely, has the perfect voice for bringing her stories to life. What surprised me was the difference in reading level and subject matter between the two books. The Dragonfly Pool is decidely a middle grade novel focused on the concerns of children around age 12. A Company of Swans is a much more mature novel, aimed at older teens, and even adults. There is quite a bit of sexual content, as well as references to young girls jumping out of cakes and dancing for rooms full of men. Readers - and especially parents - who borrow this book expecting an innocent story like that in The Dragonfly Pool - might be surprised to discover this jarring change of pace. Especially upsetting might be the scenes late in the book where Harriet decides to let Rom “ruin” her. This is a concept with which adult romance readers might be familiar, but for kids and even teens it might be a bit more than they bargained for.

Despite its mature content, however, this is a wonderful book. It immerses the reader completely in another time and place, bringing 1912 South America to life through beautifully described passages and well-developed characters. Any girl who has ever aspired to be a dancer will love all the references to various ballets, and will live vicariously through Harriet’s dream role as a member of the ballet company. Girls who love romances will also enjoy all the yearning and heartache that occurs between Harriet and Rom before the inevitable happy ending finally brings them together. Readers will also love the suspense created by the various roadblocks to the couple’s happiness, from a misunderstanding regarding Rom’s late brother, to the sudden arrival of Harriet’s intended husband in the city where she is staying.

For teens who are beginning to grow out of YA novels, many of which seem to be aimed at the middle school set, A Company of Swans is a perfect first foray into the world of adult fiction. It is certainly better written than many of the mass market historical romances being published these days, and even the most intimate moments between the main characters are handled subtly and tastefully. I will probably never love an Eva Ibbotson novel as much as I loved The Dragonfly Pool, but this book was a close second. For a teen ready for a mature romance novel, it is the best book I could recommend.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: What Could Go Wrong? by Willo Davis Roberts (1989)

Thirteen-year-old cousins Eddie, Charlie, and Gracie practically have to beg their parents, but they are finally allowed to fly on their own to San Francisco to stay with their Aunt Molly. What is supposed to be a routine flight quickly turns suspicious, however, when the plane makes an unexpected landing, an old lady traveling with the kids is attacked, and two sinister characters keep following them around. Before they can enjoy their visit with their aunt, the three kids might just have to help solve a major crime!

Completely by chance, I saw the cover of this book on Novelist K-8 one day while I was searching for something else. Though I never would have thought of the book in a hundred years on my own, seeing the cover made me instantly snap to attention. I knew that I had read this book - and loved it - when I was a kid. I immediately logged into the library catalog and put it on hold. When the book arrived, I read it in one sitting.

As she does in most of her books, Willo Davis Roberts puts the three main characters in What Could Go Wrong? in unlikely but plausible danger. Though I found much of the story silly and predictable as an adult, I can remember being surprised by each new development when I read it back when I was in the target age group. Whether the events of the story seem believable or not is irrelevant, though, because the true appeal of the book is the idea that three kids could fight off criminals on their own, without any help from their parents or other adults in their lives. I think most kids like to imagine what they would do in a dangerous situation. This book takes those imaginings to their naturally exciting conclusion.

Re-reading this book was a pleasant experience, and it reminded me a lot of Kate Messner’s Capture the Flag, where a group of middle school-aged kids also solve a major crime in an airport. Though much of Roberts’s writing is outdated by today’s standards (this book uses the word “Oriental” to describe people on more than one occasion), the subject matter is still relevant and interesting to today’s kids. I don’t think that many kids will pick up this book, given its decidedly retro cover, but mystery readers desperate for a great crime story could probably be persuaded with a compelling booktalk.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Book Review: You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey (2013)

This poetic picture book is a meditation on the ways in which kids are connected to nature through sweat, tears, air, and atoms.

This is a strange but beautiful book. The pictures resemble dioramas, as they combine paper cut-outs, string, and three-dimensional objects to create various scenes. It’s not always clear what each image is actually meant to depict, but this adds to the dreamlike quality of the poetic text. The best pictures in the entire book are the one about breathing, where the trees seem to lean against an unseen breeze while rabbits fall gently from the sky, and the one about sneezing and brain electricity, where kids stand on blue and purple clouds and throw lightning bolts against a pitch-black background. Though there is little explanation of either image in the text, both are perfectly suited to what is being discussed on their pages. Also wonderful is the image of the little girl standing with a hand above her head as though guessing how tall she might grow in the future.
Readers who enjoyed All the World might also like You Are Stardust. This is the kind of picture book that can also be given to older kids, and even to adults, as a gift. Though I can’t really think of a specific child I would suggest this book to, I do like it and I might have to spend some more time with it before I can think of more ways to share it with others.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: A Blossom Promise by Betsy Byars (1987)

As the fourth Blossom adventure begins, the town of Alderson has been flooded by recent heavy rainstorms. Junior is excited that the sun is finally shining because Pap has promised to bring him to Mad Mary’s cave for an overnight visit. While he waits impatiently at home with his dog, Dump, Pap is off enjoying the water with his dog, Mud, and Vern and his best friend Michael are setting sail on a dangerous homemade raft. In the meantime, Maggie and her mother are riding in the rodeo, and Maggie is struggling to come to grips with her mother’s interest in a new man. When Vern gets himself into trouble, and Pap collapses running to his rescue, Junior is the only one available to save the day.

This book is probably the most action-oriented of the series. In the first three books, there are elements of danger and excitement, but in this story, there are real issues of life and death. Byars’s writing, though concise and relatively quick and easy to read, is filled with beautiful imagery. In my mind, the story passes by as a series of moments, each of which I can picture as clearly as if it were playing on a movie screen. I can see the creek swelling, the boys desperately paddling their raft, and Pap trying to swing his lasso and instead falling to the ground. I can picture the rodeo scenes, and empathize completely with Maggie’s excitement as she performs in her first true trick ride. I can even imagine Dump digging for frogs under the porch of the house, and Mud, crumpled on his side as he worries about the fate of his master. Byars is a wonderful storyteller, and the events of her books, and the emotions of her characters, have a tendency to stick with me indefinitely.

At the time of its publication, A Blossom Promise was the final book of the Blossoms series, and I think it provided a fitting conclusion for each character that would have left me perfectly satisfied. Several years after this book was published, however, Betsy Byars wrote a fifth book, Wanted… Mud Blossom, published in 1991, turning the series into a quintet.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Book Review: Picture My World by Severine Cordier and Cynthia LaCroix (2012)

This squat book from the creators of A Day at the Farm is a hodgepodge of captioned images of childhood events, as experienced by three siblings.

The bold lines and bright colors of the pictures make this the kind of book toddlers will pick right up off a shelf and bring to the nearest grown-up. Though there is a line of dialogue to accompany nearly every illustration, the pictures tell stories all their own. I love the two-page spread where the kids make pictures with their breath on the windowpane on a cold day. I love the floor strewn with toys and medicine as one of the kids sleeps on the couch on a sick day. I even love the sad (but tasteful) image of the little girl burying a dead bird and wondering why it had to die. Each image evokes such a strong sense of nostalgia for me that I can’t imagine they wouldn’t speak to children about their own personal experiences.

Adults sharing this book with kids at home should be prepared for lots of questions, and lots of conversation in general, and they probably shouldn’t expect to get through the book in one sitting. It’s the perfect kind of book for promoting all kinds of early literacy skills, but it might not be the quickest bedtime story. Save this one for a rainy day or vacation, when there is lots of time to pore over every detail.

Picture My World is similar to Seasons and People by Blexbolex. Some of the pictures also reminded me of Peanuts comics, especially the one where the youngest girl in the family stands on a stage, and musical notes come tumbling out of her mouth.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Margaret & Taylor by Kevin Henkes (1983)

Margaret and Taylor are sister and brother, and this book relates the events that happen to them surrounding their grandfather’s birthday party. From finding a gift for Grandpa, to losing a party balloon, to fighting over a piece of leftover cake, this book captures all the daily joys and trials of having a sibling.

The most remarkable thing about this book is the dialogue. Margaret’s voice is that of the typically bossy and conniving big sister, but Taylor’s voice comes through time and again as that of the little brother who will not let his sister win. The back and forth between these two characters sounds real, and brings to life a relationship that most kids with siblings will find very familiar. Little brothers will rejoice when Taylor occasionally gets the best of his sister, as he does when she forgets about her cake, and he eats it. Big sisters will be secretly tickled when Margaret is able to convince her brother to do something wrong, like open the mail, or when she invents an imaginary friend and makes Taylor feel bad for not being able to see her.

Another really interesting feature of this book is its one nearly-wordless chapter. The entirety of Grandpa’s birthday is told in pictures, with the exception of one page where the word “Surprise!” is written many times over, expressing how the guests greeted Grandpa. The illustrations include details such as the hats, cake, and balloons that figure into later interactions between the two kids as well.

Margaret and Taylor was published in 1983, and it was only Henkes’s third book. Though his work has evolved over the past 30 years, it is interesting to look back on this early title to see how it relates to his more recent books. The “surprise” page reminds me of a similar moment in his picture book, Shhh, from 1989, where a young girl creeps into her parents’ bedroom and wakes them up with a loud chorus of good mornings. The tension between the two siblings makes me think of Lilly’s anger toward her new brother, Julius, in Julius, Baby of the World from 1989. Most of all, his serious, introspective, and thoughtful writing style is present in each of his longer works from 2003’s Olive’s Ocean to this year’s The Year of Billy Miller.

Margaret and Taylor is out of print, but despite its age, it still feels very timeless, like most Henkes books. If you can find a copy in a library, it’s absolutely worth checking it out and sharing it with the Henkes fans in your life. Kids who enjoy this retro title might also be interested in reading Johanna Hurwitz’s series about the Riverside Kids.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: The Year of the Baby by Andrea Cheng (2013)

In this sequel to last year's The Year of the Book, Anna, who has learned to make friends beyond the pages of her favorite books is now in fifth grade, and she has a new problem. Her family has just adopted a one-year-old little girl from China named Kaylee, but Kaylee is struggling to thrive in her new environment. Anna is worried each time her new sister returns home with a negative report from the doctor's office about her failure to gain weight. Anna is also having trouble deciding on a topic for an assignment where she has to design and conduct a science experiment. When she and her friends realize that singing helps Kaylee eat her food, they decide to use Kaylee's struggle to gain weight as the focus of their experiment.

Though I was disappointed to see that Abigail Halpin is no longer the illustrator for this series, I was pleased to note that the new illustrations by Patrice Barton have a similar feel to them, which captures the mood of this quiet novel. Like the first book, this one is very introspective, dealing mostly with Anna's personal thoughts and feelings about her friends, her school assignment, and her new sister. The writing, though straightforward and spare, is quite lovely, almost poetic. There are many examples, but here is one which struck me as particularly relatable and well-written:

In the middle of the night I wake up and realize that I forgot to study my spelling and vocabulary words. Last year in fourth grade, they were so easy that I got 100 without studying. But this year there are usually some words I don't know.

I turn on the light, rummage in my backpack for my notebook, and flip quickly through the pages. Twelve words this time: hospitality, lively, simile, metaphor, insomnia, delicious, desert, dessert, adapt, superfluous, comprehensive, limerick. I look hard at the words and spell them in my head. Then I close my eyes and try to remember as many as I can. I think of pictures to go with each word, like desert goes with camels and sand. In about ten minutes, I have the words memorized. I turn the light off again and lie still in my bed.

I love the way this passage highlights Anna's desire to be a good student and the ease with which she is able to memorize, and also the way the author describes the process of memorization.

Another thing I really like about the writing in this book is the way the author works in Anna's discomfort with some of the comments her friend, Laura, makes about Anna's Chinese culture. Here is one example:

“Your sister is so cute.”

Kaylee holds on around my legs.

“She's look like you,” Laura says.

“She's adopted.”

“I know. But she still looks like you.”

I don't know what to say. The only reason Laura thinks we look alike is because we're both Chinese.

Laura's comment seems to originate in ignorance, not in a desire to be hurtful, but I like the way the author gently points out why it makes Anna feel bad. Cheng provides a teachable moment that gives the reader a chance to consider not just how we talk about other people's cultures, but also how we respond to comments that make us uncomfortable. I especially like that this is a small moment in the story, and not the sole focus of the book, because it shows that race and culture are part of our everyday lives and not just something we discuss in stories specifically focused on these issues.

The Year of the Baby is a great follow-up to The Year of the Book, and I'm looking forward to reading the third book, The Year of the Fortune Cookies wherein Anna will take on the new challenges presented by middle school. This series is a logical read-alike for Grace Lin's Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days, which are fictional stories based on Lin's own childhood in a Chinese-American family. It also reminds me of Just Grace and the Terrible Tutu and Just Grace and the Double Surprise, which focus on the adoption of a new child into Grace's best friend Mimi's family. This book also fulfills a great need for more kids' books featuring girls doing science.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review: The Blossoms and the Green Phantom by Betsy Byars (1987)

Junior Blossom has had pretty terrible luck with his inventions. First, his wings failed him and landed him in the hospital with two broken legs. Then, his coyote trap caught him (and later Mud) instead of the coyote he so desperately wanted to see. Now, he’s in the midst of building a spaceship called The Green Phantom, but it just isn’t going according to plan. While Maggie practices trick horseback riding so she can join her mom in the rodeo and Vern hangs around at his new friend, Michael’s house, Junior begins to worry that he will never do anything to make his father proud. While Junior’s mother, Vicky, tries to rally the family to help Junior launch his spaceship successfully, Pap has also gone missing, as he has fallen into a dumpster and needs to be rescued. Once again, as the family is kept apart by unforeseen circumstances, they deepen their understanding of their need for one another.

Of the three Blossom books I have read so far, I think this one is my favorite. There is so much emotional depth in each character’s experiences in this story that I feel as though I now know each one intimately. Byars does a beautiful job of describing each child’s feelings about their deceased father, as well as their feelings about one another. Though Vern is not an especially touchy-feely kid, the reader sympathizes deeply with his concerns that Michael won’t like visiting his house because of how different it is. Maggie’s excitement over being asked to join the rodeo with her mother demonstrates how much she loves her mother, and also how much she wants to be a part of her father’s legacy. Junior’s desire for attention and his need to make his dad proud also tug at the heartstrings and remind us how young Junior still is, despite all his bravado and big ideas. Pap is perhaps the most interesting character of all, because we get to see his weaknesses for the first time, as he sits inside the cold dumpster with an orphaned puppy, contemplating what will happen if he isn’t found, while Mud sits injured and powerless to help, just outside.

This book is filled with beautiful descriptions. Here are just a few of my favorite brief passages:

  • On page 42, Vern reflects on the differences between himself and Michael, and his certainty that Michael’s involvement in any project will make it a success:

    Now that his mother had included Michael in the project, he figured they couldn’t lose. After all, Michael and his family had every single thing there was in the world. Michael’s father’s workshop was like a hardware store. Michael’s room was like the sporting goods department at Sears.

    Though the text never comes right out and says that Vern is ashamed of his family, or that he wishes for more material things, this passage gives the reader that sense in just a few words.
  • On page 63, Pap watches the sunset from the dumpster:

    Pap watched the sun go down from inside the dumpster. It was a big red sun that hung over the purple ridges of mountains for a long time. Then it dropped with amazing speed behind the peaks and out of sight.

    Pap felt a chill touch his bones.

    Again, Byars uses just a few short lines to convey both the coolness of the evening as the sun disappears and Pap’s growing fear about never being rescued.
  • On page 72, the Green Phantom is launched for the first time:

    It gave Junior a strange, scientific feeling. He knew the Phantom wasn’t real. He knew it was only air mattresses and garbage bags and Day-Glo paint, and yet seeing something that strange and beautiful made him feel - well, maybe it wasn’t a scientific feeling where everything happened according to law, this was more of a science fiction feeling where things happened the way you wanted them to happen.
    I think the line about the difference between scientific feelings and science fiction feelings is my favorite of the entire story.
This book is so easy to overlook, especially editions with older covers, but despite the odd title and dated illustrations, this is an extremely well-written and touching story about a family coming together to support its youngest and oldest members in times of great need.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: Anastasia at Your Service by Lois Lowry (1982)

Anastasia has settled into suburban life, but she really wishes she had a job. Specifically, she wants to work as a Lady’s Companion to a rich old lady, a position she imagines would be quite glamorous and suited to her abilities. When she puts out an ad, Anastasia is in fact hired by a rich grandmother, but it turns out that Mrs. Bellingham just wants her to work as a maid. Worse, Mrs. Bellingham has a granddaughter, Daphne, who is Anastasia’s age, and she just happens to be a witness to one of Anastasia’s most embarrassing moments of all time! This is not the fabulous summer Anastasia imagined, but her trials and tribulations make for hilarious tween reading material all the same.

It is so puzzling to me that the Anastasia series didn’t really catch on with me as a kid. I can remember looking at them many times in the library and bookstores, but I never really got hooked. Now, though, I look forward to reading each volume, because of the quirky protagonist, clever dialogue, and warm family environment. Kids will recognize bits of themselves in Anastasia - her imagination, her stubborn streak, her anger at being treated unfairly, and her humiliation when she makes wacky plans that don’t come off quite as she imagined. Readers will feel sympathy for her, too, when a family emergency erases her worries about how she looks to her employer and instead focuses her energy on the well-being of her baby brother.

Readers who like Harriet the Spy and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will also be likely fans of this book, because of its vintage style, intelligent writing, and memorable characters.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review: The Blossoms Meet the Vulture Lady by Betsy Byars (1986)

A year has passed since Junior Blossom broke his legs and Pap went to jail. Now Junior is working on a brand-new, top secret project - a coyote trap. While the rest of his family is busy, Junior takes his trap into the woods to set it, only to accidentally trap himself inside. To his surprise, he is rescued by an eccentric recluse known as Mad Mary, whose kindness toward Junior sparks a new, unlikely friendship.

This second book about the Blossom family is very similar in content to the first book, but without being utterly repetitious. Though Junior is once again separated from the rest of the family, the circumstances are quite different this time around, and the overall message is less about the uniqueness of the Blossom family and more about their acceptance of a person like Mad Mary whose way of living is so unorthdox and even intimidating. The cast of characters remains small in this second book, which makes it possible for the reader to spend a bit of time inside each character’s mind. Maggie and Vern frustrate Junior by not being there to question him about his trap, but they show their interest in their brother’s quirky inventions in their own way. Ralphie, Junior’s hospital roommate from the first book, reappears, filled with love and admiration for Maggie, while Vern longs for a best friend of his own. Mud, the family dog, is back as well, and even he has a role in the adventure when the empty trap snaps shut on him, too. Pap rounds out the family with his very specific personality and his own backstory regarding his years in school with Mad Mary. Just spending time with these characters is a treat. It almost doesn’t matter what happens in the book; just looking in on this well-developed family is enjoyable all on its own.

This book features deep characterization, wonderful dialogue, and hints of mystery and adventure. It can appeal easily to boys and girls, and it’s short enough that less enthusiastic readers might be willing to give it a chance over other, longer books available on their reading level. Readers will be encouraged to consider the meaning of concepts like family and friendship, and to examine their own prejudices against both little brothers and those who are in any way perceived as “different.” The story is by turns introspective and action-packed, and the outcome of Junior’s accidental trapping of himself is completely satisfying. Readers will leave this story anxiously waiting to find out what Junior will build next and what sort of trouble he’ll find himself in.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Book Review: The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin (1960)

When Halloween is over, Felina, a young witch girl, finds herself stranded with a broken broom, unable to fly home to her family. She is taken in by the Doons - two parents, their daughter, Lucinda, and their cat, Itchabody - who slowly help her shed her witchy persona and become a sweet and loving human child.

This Halloween-themed story was originally published in 1960, and has just been reissued by Simon & Schuster with new cover art, giving it a new lease on life for 2013 readers. Unlike so many holiday titles, this one has a lot of substance and it explores real issues beyond just the whimsy of Halloween night. Though Felina is a witch, and does seem to have magic powers, her story really reads like an allegory of the experience a child might have in a new foster home. Her magical powers and unusual habits can be read as the misbehavior of a child acting out in an uncertain environment, and her ultimate shedding of her witchy identity seems to represent her acceptance of her new family.

What makes this story work so well is the fact that no one - not Lucinda, who narrates the book, and not any of the adults in her life - questions that Felina is a witch. The fact that everyone just accepts that notion as truth actually contributes to an overall sense of ambiguity that I really enjoyed. If Felina truly is a witch, then the story is fantasy, and the adults in the story live in a world where witches exist and their existence is readily accepted. There is a possibility, though, that Felina is not a witch, and that the adults of the story merely humor her insistence that she is in order to help her settle in to her new situation on her own terms. This sense of ambiguity is helped significantly by the fact that the story is narrated not by Felina, but by Lucinda, her foster sister. Lucinda’s childlike outlook makes it perfectly plausible that Felina is a witch, but also makes it equally possible that Felina’s magic powers have been invented to explain her strange behavior as she adjusts to her new family.

I might be reading more into this book than is intended, and I don’t think it’s necessary to adopt my reading to enjoy the story. It works very well as a fantasy tale, and I think young readers who have liked reading about Mildred Hubble in the Worst Witch series, and those who have enjoyed Lulu Goes to Witch School will be delighted to make friends with another witch and to follow the story of how she is ultimately adopted into a human family. Some kids - and I might have been one of them - will wonder why Felina is never returned to her witch family, and why she doesn’t seem to miss them. I could even see some critics possibly complaining that it’s unfair or somehow judgmental to favor the love of a human family over the love of a witch family, but that would really be taking things too far. In my opinion, this is a charming chapter book that will be enjoyed at Halloween and all year round by girls ages 6 to 9.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher (2013)

Grace Yang loves everything about the FBI, and she often drags her best friend, Sophie Young, along with her on late-night stakeouts in their neighborhood. One night, as they spy on the school counselor, Dr. Agford, the girls are convinced they see her committing a violent crime. Though these claims turn out to be unsubstantiated, neither girl can shake the feeling that this unusual woman, with her fake breasts and giant wig, isn’t quite what she seems. Despite the challenges it creates in their family lives - and in their friendship - the girls become determined to uncover the truth.

It’s difficult to find a really compelling middle grade mystery. Many are either boring, predictable, or implausible, and few manage to keep the reader guessing to the end of the story. The Wig in the Window, therefore, is a pleasant surprise because it has an exciting premise, unexpected twists and turns, interesting characters, and mostly believable situations. From the outset, I was as invested in the characters themselves as in the mystery they attempt to solve, and I was impressed by how the author could develop such an authentic tween vibe within the context of a mystery story. Often, middle grade mysteries feature precocious kids who have professional detective agencies, or else the main characters are older teens like Nancy Drew. It is so refreshing to have a truly scary and suspenseful mystery story that also manages to reflect the interests, concerns, and speech patterns of its target audience.

Next to the mystery plot itself, this book’s strengths lie in characterization. Especially impressive to me is the way the author develops the layers of Ms. Agford’s character. She keeps the reader guessing from chapter to chapter, and manages to make Agford both sympathetic and truly detestable depending on the evidence currently being explored and the character with whom she is interacting. Another delightful addition to the story is Sophie’s new friend Trista Bottoms, who is the target of tormentors who call her “Boom Boom Bottoms.” I love that Trista is not only confident enough to ignore those negative comments, but also technically savvy and completely capable in ways that Sophie and Grace are not. Her can-do attitude is truly refreshing and it provides a nice challenge to middle grade stereotypes about victims of bullying.

The Wig in the Window is a logical read-alike for The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman by Ben H. Winters, as both books explore the mysteries surrounding a middle school faculty member. It is most likely to appeal to readers who actively seek out mystery novels, but it also has lots to offer fans of the school stories and friendship stories that are so popular with this age group. Other similar titles include the Sleuth or Dare series and the Ruby Redfort series.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reading Through History: Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill (2013)

When Bo was a baby, her Mama “walked away”, leaving her to be raised by two burly gold miners, Arvid and Jack. Now she is five years old, and everyone at Ballard Creek is a part of her extended family. She jokes around with “the boys” and imitates their accents. The “good-time girls” dress her up and do her hair. She speaks Eskimo along with English, and enjoys Eskimo foods such as akutaq, which is made from caribou bone marrow and fat. This book takes place over one year at Ballard Creek and tells tales of Bo’s adventures large and small. These include seeing an airplane up-close, being chased by a grizzly bear, catching pneumonia and watching her best friend go to school while she stays home. Through it all, Bo remains a buoyant and carefree little girl enjoying her childhood in late 1920s Alaska.

When I reviewed Ann M. Martin’s first Family Tree book back in April, Ms. Yingling left a comment on my blog which read, “I will have to read this, but I do wish that historical fiction would be more humorous and adventure filled. it is hard enough to get students to read it.” Though I apparently did not reply to her comment, I remember thinking that she was right. My main issue with historical fiction as a kid was that it was depressing and everyone was always getting sick or dying or suffering some other tragedy. This is why Bo at Ballard Creek was like a breath of fresh air for me. This is a kid-friendly historical fiction book that focuses on the day-to-day life of people in a particular time and place without dwelling heavily on hardship.

The age of the main character makes this a difficult book to categorize. Most middle grade readers would probably be turned off by the notion of reading about a character so much younger than themselves, but early chapter book readers don’t yet have the reading skills to tackle much of the vocabulary. While this might make the story difficult to catalogue in libraries, it also makes it a perfect family read-aloud, similar in style and tone to books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carolyn Haywood, and Beverly Cleary. Young readers of all ages can enjoy the ups and downs of Bo’s exciting young life, and I think they are most likely to do so when the story is shared in a family context. I haven’t heard of any plans for a sequel, but I think it would be wonderful to have more stories about Bo as she ages, so that, like Ramona, she can grow up along with her readers.

The writing alone makes Bo at Ballard Creek one of my favorite books of 2013, but the illustrations caused me to love it even more. LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Alvin Ho series, brings Bo’s world to life in her pen and ink drawings, which are scattered generously throughout the text. She is one of my favorite illustrators, and her pictures for this book are full of life and personality which helps immerse the reader in the unfamiliar but thoroughly interesting Alaskan setting. Pham’s artwork helps the reader keep track of the large cast of characters and also provides the necessary visual context young listeners need to help them stay focused on the story as their grown-ups read it aloud.

Author Kirkpatrick Hill based much of Bo at Ballard Creek on her own personal experiences growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, which makes the book not just entertaining, but also reliable and authentic. Though I was not previously familiar with this author, I am pleased that she has written several other Alaskan tales for children: Dancing at the Odinochka, The Year of Miss Agnes, Toughboy and Sister, and Winter Camp, many of which look like more traditional middle grade novels. Share Bo at Ballard Creek with boys and girls ages 4-10 who enjoy light-hearted historical adventures, and incorporate it into lesson plans and programs exploring the state of Alaska.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: Anastasia Again by Lois Lowry (1981)

In this second novel about Anastasia, the Krupnik family decides to move to the suburbs. Anastasia is against the idea based on her preconceived notions about suburban life, but even she can’t object when her parents find the perfect house. Once they move in, Anastasia and her brother, Sam, now a toddler, befriend Gertrude Stein, their elderly next door neighbor, whom Anastasia desperately wants to help make new friends and break out of her shell. Anastasia also deals with her complicated feelings for a boy in her old neighborhood, who has gotten the mistaken impression that Anastasia’s little brother is physically disabled.

There is so much to like about Lois Lowry’s writing. Her dialogue reads like real conversation. Her characters have delightful quirks and flaws. She manages to understand exactly what it’s like to be an awkward twelve-year-old, but she makes it fun and not painful to read about the experience. I think what I especially like about this book is how the entire storyline is firmly grounded in family life. Contemporary middle grade fiction being published right now seems to focus more on school and friends than on family, so it’s refreshing when I read about a character whose parents are such an important part of her life, even if that character’s stories were published before I was born.

I had some questions about the authenticity of Sam’s verbal skills and even his thought processes, since he doesn’t seem like a typical two-year-old. Still, I was mostly able to buy that he was just an advanced child, because of the highly intellectual environment in which he is being raised. Also related to Sam, I appreciated that Lowry jumped ahead in time between the first and second books of this series, so that he was no longer an infant at the start of this book. I think Anastasia’s relationship to him is very interesting, and it might not have been so if there were several books where all Sam did was sleep and have his diaper changed. It’s also nice to see that Anastasia mostly likes her brother, but that there are also realistic moments of disgust with some of his toddler behaviors.

Anastasia Again! does a lovely job of exploring the family’s move to the suburbs and of highlighting the relationships young people can develop with their elderly neighbors. The dynamic between Anastasia and Gertrude Stein is much more interesting than the superficial dynamics between middle school kids that turn up in so many books, and both characters stuck with me long after I finished the story.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: The Picts and the Martyrs by Arthur Ransome (1943)

Dick and Dorothea have just arrived for a visit at Beckfoot with Nancy and Peggy when the unthinkable happens. Nancy and Peggy’s Great Aunt Maria turns up, determined to look after the Blackett girls while their mother is away. To avoid upsetting the Great Aunt, Dick and Dorothea hide themselves away in a nearby shed, calling themselves “picts” and keeping out of sight. In the meantime, Nancy implicates many adults in her plot to keep the visitors secret including Cook, the mailman, and Timothy.

The absence of the Swallows for the entire story was a disappointment for me in this book, as it is the second to last in the series, and I only have one more chance to spend any time with those characters. My personal feelings aside, though, I really appreciate that Ransome chose to explore a different dynamic in this story. I like the way he pairs the two quietest and least troublesome characters, Dick and Dorothea, with the wild, opinionated Amazon pirates, and forces them to conspire to keep a secret. I really enjoyed seeing how seriously Dick and Dorothea took their role as picts, and it made me laugh to see the usually mouthy Nancy behaving herself primly for the benefit of the great aunt. This book provides a lot of insight into the unlikely friendship between these two pairs of kids and gives Dick and Dorothea the opportunity to be something more than resident nerds.

There is less sailing in this book than in many of the others, which I also saw as a plus because it provides more room for character development. Since the reader spends most of the story with the D’s, these two characters come much more strongly to life than in other books where all the characters are present. The lack of a sailing-oriented plot also provides other opportunities for adventure, including a late-night break-in at Beckfoot and an all-out manhunt when the great aunt eventually goes missing. There were many wonderfully suspenseful moments that kept me on the edge of my seat as my husband read the book aloud to me, and many chapters where I groaned as I realized I’d be left waiting to find out what happened until the next day.

The Picts and the Martyrs ranks high on my list of favorites in the Swallows and Amazons series, right beside Winter Holiday. Though I will be sad to finish the series, I’m glad to have one more book to go - Great Northern?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: The Not-Just Anybody Family by Betsy Byars (1986)

The Blossom kids know better than to hang around when the police show up, so when the cops come looking for their grandfather, Pap, both Maggie and Vern run off into the woods and hide. Unfortunately, Junior, their brother, is on the roof of the barn attempting to fly with cloth wings, and his getaway is thwarted when he falls and breaks both his legs. With their mom away with the rodeo, their dog, Mud, missing, Pap in jail and Junior in the hospital, Maggie and Vern are left to their own devices, and they must rely on their own ingenuity to bring everyone back together again, whatever it takes.

In this book, as she does in The Pinballs (1977), Betsy Byars explores the lives of realistic kids in a difficult, but entirely plausible, situation. She does not shy away from the negative emotions Maggie, Vern, and Junior each feel as things crash down around them, but she doesn’t allow them to wallow in negativity either. Rather, she focuses on the ways in which kids themselves can be empowered to make their own good fortune, and to fight against life’s problems by relying on each other. Readers will be delighted when Vern manages to break into jail, and they will be equally thrilled by Junior’s hospital roommate, Ralphie, whose spunky attitude and outrageous lies help him cope with the loss of his legs. Animal lovers, too, will be pleased to follow Mud as he, too, tries to track down his master and get back to the warmth and comfort of home.

The Not-Just-Anybody Family is a great family story about sticking together in times of trouble. Though some of the subject matter is quite serious, the kids’ adventures in jail, in the hospital, and in the courtroom provide a lot of laughs that make readers fall in love with the Blossoms and want to be a part of their family, however dysfunctional it might be. Kids who have quirky families of their own, or who are sick of sugary-sweet stories about typically happy families will get a kick out of this book, and will undoubtedly look forward to its four sequels: The Blossoms Meet the Vulture Lady, The Blossoms and the Green Phantom, A Blossom Promise, and Wanted… Mud Blossom.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes (2013)

Just before school starts, seven-year-old Billy Miller falls while he is on vacation with his family, giving himself a big lump on the head. Billy worries that now that he bumped his head, he might not be smart enough for second grade. As the year wears on, however, Billy proves himself more than capable, as he wins over his new teacher, helps his father reach a breakthrough with his art, attempts to stay up all night with his little sister, Sal, and writes and performs a poem celebrating his mom.
I have long admired Kevin Henkes for his range as an author. He writes successfully for all levels, from babies and toddlers right up to middle schoolers. I enjoy sharing his simple picture books like A Good Day and Birds in lap time and story time. Chrysanthemum is a favorite for school visits. His Penny books have been popular in my beginning reader story times, and they often disappear from the shelves the moment they are put back. Novels such as Words of Stone and Olive's Ocean demonstrate his deep understanding of the emotions of childhood and his mastery of the English language. The Year of Billy Miller combines all the best of Henkes's talents into what I believe is his best work to date.

The appeal of Billy Miller is that he is just a normal kid, living his normal day to day life. He doesn't have super powers. He's not a child prodigy, a kid detective, or even a troublemaker. He's a typical seven-year-old whose biggest problems involve getting off on the wrong foot with his teacher and wondering if it's babyish to call his parents "Mama" and "Papa." Each of the four sections of the book - called simply Teacher, Father, Sister, and Mother - explore events that take place either at home or at school, meaning that most of what happens to Billy could happen to any child of his age. Billy is a character whose universal experiences give him universal appeal, but at the same time, he is a very specific boy brought to life with very specific details.

There are so many lovely moments in this book that make Billy a memorable and sympathetic character. I love the scene where he picks up two red markers to use as devil horns to make a face at an annoying classmate and realizes too late that his teacher thinks he is making fun of the chopsticks in her hair. I love that he sits his parents down at one point to explain that he wants to start calling them "Mom" and "Dad" instead of "Mama" and "Papa" and that he finds that he must practice their new names to remember to use them. I also enjoy the fact that he uses the phrase "food baby" and that he makes up a new friend to play with his sister's stuffed whales when he tries to get her to stay up all night with him.

The Year of Billy Miller combines the precision of language of Henkes's novels with the emotional intelligence and character education of his picture books. Though it's not quite an early chapter book, as it is quite long and is not necessarily an easy read, it will appeal to kids in preschool and early elementary school, and it will be an ideal read-aloud for families and primary classrooms. This book is my favorite of this entire year, and I hope I'm not alone in thinking it might receive some Newbery recognition this Winter. The Year of Billy Miller is a must-buy for libraries, and a must-own for families who love distinctive and timeless children's books.

For a wonderful review of this book and a deeper explanation of why it's so great, read Betsy Bird's review over at Fuse 8.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book Review: The Noonday Friends by Mary Stolz (1965)

Franny Davis is eleven years old, and though she loves her father, she is often frustrated by his lack of ambition. An artist at heart, Mr. Davis finds it difficult to hold down any one job for very long, which leaves the family with little money to spare and lots of financial worries. These concerns are compounded by the fact that not long ago, Mr. Davis experienced an illness, the treatment for which left his family deep in debt. Mrs. Davis must now work full time, and since the youngest child, Marshall, is only five, Franny and her twin brother Jimmy have to look after him each afternoon instead of spending time with their friends. Thankfully, Franny’s friend, Simone, understands Franny’s situation because it is similar to her own, and the two form a lunchtime friendship that helps each of them cope with the difficulties of their daily lives.

This book was originally published in 1965, and it received a Newbery Honor in 1966. The story is told primarily from Franny’s point of view, but occasional chapters visit other perspectives to broaden the reader’s understanding of the lives of both girls and their families. I really enjoyed Stolz’s writing style, which focuses mainly on the emotions of her characters, and on the development of their individual personalities. Among my favorite characters is Marshall, the youngest brother, whose dialogue sometimes sounds too mature for his age, but whose desire for a birthday celebration is universally relatable and provides the bulk of the story’s suspense. I also like the way Stolz encourages the reader to empathize with Franny’s dad, despite his bad habits. Though I was never completely happy with his actions, I could understand how he was torn between his passion and his need to support his family.

The Noonday Friends is a great realistic fiction novel for readers who enjoy episodic tales of family life. Because of the New York City setting, some parts of the story put me in mind of Johanna Hurwitz, who also writes a lot of great slice-of-life stories about city living. The subject matter also makes it a great read-alike for Ramona and her Father, which also focuses on the difficulties faced by a family when a parent loses a job. In our current economic crisis, the themes in this book are perfectly relevant, and because the writing focuses mostly on the characters and not on the larger culture, there are few references that date the book to the 1960s.

I don’t know how I managed to miss this book, especially since it is a Newbery Honor! I look forward to reading more from Mary Stolz, and to possibly revisiting a title of hers I do remember from childhood, The Bully of Barkham Street.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: The Pinballs by Betsy Byars (1977)

On the same day, three kids arrive at the same foster home: Thomas J. who has been raised by elderly twins after being abandoned by his birth mother, Harvey, whose own father ran over his legs with the family car, and Carlie, who has been removed from her home because of an abusive stepdad. Though they are supposedly just pinballs, existing together in one space without any particular regard for one another, these three kids form a bond that helps all three of them look hopefully toward the future.

I have known of this book for years because it was assigned reading in my own sixth grade language arts class, back in 1993, but the only thing that sounded at all familiar about it when I picked it up again was the name Thomas J. Otherwise, this may have been my first reading of the book. It was a much quicker and more engaging read than I remember. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t tolerate sadness very well as a kid, and knowing that kids were treated badly by their parents would have automatically kept me from investing myself too much in the story. As an adult, though, with lots more books under my belt, I can really appreciate the value of this book, and its continued relevance more than 35 years after its publication.

I think what makes this book stand the test of time more than anything else is its honesty about how the characters feel. As they settle into their new foster home, two of the characters cope by making lists about their lives. Harvey writes “Bad Things That Have Happened To Me” while Carlie starts one entitled “Big Events and How I Got Cheated Out of Them.” Carlie asks pointed questions of her foster mother, revealing her fears and confusion about why this woman wants her to live in her home. Harvey expresses real disappointment when he is promised Kentucky Fried Chicken and his foster father forgets to bring it home. Thomas J. worries about his inability to express love because the elderly twins who cared for him never really demonstrated their feelings. These anecdotes from the lives of the three foster kids are very real, and they help kids relate to the difficulties the characters face, even if they have never had the same experiences. There are some really dated pop culture expressions and references that might put off some contemporary readers, but beyond those are three well-developed characters with three-dimensional personalities and distinct identities.

This is the third book I have reviewed on this blog that depicts children in the foster care system. One for the Murphys describes an almost sugary-sweet situation in which a young girl slowly acclimates to her completely loving and perfect foster family. The Story of Tracy Beaker focuses on a more difficult little girl, who has been left at the children’s home for a long time, with little hope for a foster family to take her in. The Pinballs strikes a balance between these two more extreme scenarios and focuses on the friendships formed among the kids rather than their relationships to the adults who try to improve their lives. Though there are positive things to be said for all three books, I think The Pinballs is the one that is most likely to stick with me. For me, it’s the most real, and in some ways, the most hopeful, because it empowers the kids to take control of their own destiny and to focus on themselves instead of the adults who let them down.

I would recommend the The Pinballs to readers in grades 4 to 8 who prefer realistic fiction and character-driven stories, and who are ready to grapple with heavier issues.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Book Review: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen by Claudia Mills (2013)

Kelsey Green is great at reading. Her best friends are good at math and running. In this first of three books exploring each of the girls' special talents, Kelsey's class learns that they will be entering a school-wide reading competition, with prizes for the best readers in each class as well as the best class of readers in the entire school. Kelsey desperately wants to beat her class's other star reader, Simon, but she always seem to be a book or two behind, even when she reads the skinniest books she can find on her reading level. To make matters worse, the fifth grade's star readers are carrying their class ever-closer to first place. The only thing Kelsey can do now is try to motivate the reluctant readers in her class to read more books, even if it means being a little bit bossy in the process.

Claudia Mills consistently writes wonderfully relevant school stories at both the chapter book level and the middle grade level. In this story for the early elementary audience, she demonstrates her keen understanding of how children compete with one another, and how acutely aware kids are of reading levels, both their own and those of their classmates. Most elementary school students I know are at least slightly obsessed with reading levels, so for me, this book has its finger firmly on the pulse of what is happening right now. Since kids like to see themselves in the books they read, especially when they are just learning, this feeling that the story is happening right now is really important. I also think Mills does a nice job of creating a flawed character. Kelsey might be the reading queen, but she has a lot to learn about compassion, patience, and good sportsmanship, including how not to be a sore loser.

Interestingly, it's not completely clear from the story itself whether Kelsey herself learns a lesson, but I think the reader definitely does. Through Kelsey's behavior as she tries to teach her classmate, Cody, to love reading, kids learn how to be understanding of the differences between themselves and their classmates, and how to use their strengths to help others, not to show them up in front of everyone in order to be the best.

This book and its companions have a place in every elementary school classroom, and they might be especially useful in those where heavy competition among students of differing abilities has become a problem. Read-alikes for this series include the Polk Street School Kids books and the Clementine series.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book Review: The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Tracy Beaker lives in a children's home. She has had two failed attempts at making things work with a foster family, but because she is an older child and a bit unruly, she has had trouble making a long-term connection. When she begins writing her life story in a book given to her by the home, she discovers some writing talent, and even has the chance to meet a real-life author, but when it seems like she and the author might just hit it off, she finds that her behavior might keep her from truly enjoying this new friendship.

Tracy is the plucky kind of character kids love to read about, whether they have anything in common with her or not. She is smart-mouthed, funny, sarcastic, and authentic, and her difficult situation gives kids a lot of reasons to root for her right off the bat. She is not always a reliable narrator, but her lies and half-truths are always obvious to the reader, and I think the reader can easily understand that they arise from a desire to protect herself. Even her misbehavior – getting into fights, breaking others' belongings, having angry outbursts – is presented in a realistic way that presents things for what they are, without glorifying disobedience or immediately passing judgment on Tracy as a “bad” kid.

Though this book was originally published in the UK in 1991, it didn't make it to the United States until 2006. Though I suspect the publisher probably could have updated some things to bring the story up to date, there is no obvious evidence that this has been done in the US edition that I read. I recall no references to cell phones or other gadgets, and honestly, I'm not sure Tracy or her friends would realistically have those things even if this book were written today. Everything in the story felt very contemporary, and I think most middle grade readers would feel the same way.

Last year, when I reviewed One for the Murphys, I criticized it for its overly happy ending, which to me, felt forced and unrealistic. The Story of Tracy Beaker seems much more in tune with what a real-life foster care experience might be like, and I think anyone who reads One for the Murphys should read this book as well to ensure a more balanced look inside the lives of kids who are in the foster care system.

There are several other titles about Tracy Beaker, and though they don't seem to be available in the US, I'd definitely like to read them. They include: The Dare Game, Starring Tracy Beaker, Tracy Beaker's Thumping Heart, and Ask Tracy Beaker and Friends.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: Just As Long As We're Together by Judy Blume (1986)

I don’t remember many first lines of books that I’ve read, but somehow I’ve never been able to forget “Stephanie is into hunks,” which is the first sentence of Judy Blume’s 1986 middle grade novel Just As Long As We’re Together. I’ve also never been able to forget that the “hunk” who hangs above Stephanie’s bed is a young Richard Gere, whom Stephanie has named Benjamin Moore after the paint brand. Throw in a supposed talking dog, an exercise video involving “gluts” and a ninth grader nicknamed Jeremy Dragon, and that is basically the complete picture of what I remember about this book from childhood.

Just As Long As We’re Together is the story of Stephanie Hirsch, a seventh grader, who has two best friends. Rachel has been her best friend pretty much all her life, and Alison is new in town. As their seventh grade year unfolds, Stephanie and her friends endure the usual growing pains, including questions over whether someone can have more than one best friend. Stephanie herself faces issues surrounding her weight, her period, her parents’ troubled marriage, her brother’s nightmares about nuclear war, and of course, boys.

I was a little nervous that this book wouldn’t hold up for me as an adult, but it turns out I had nothing to worry about. From that silly first line, I was hooked on Stephanie’s voice all over again, and I found myself eagerly zipping through each chapter. I was surprised by how little plot there really is, but not at all surprised that a character-driven story about friendship would be the one I would choose as a favorite. I like that the story drifts from episode to episode, slowly exploring every facet of Stephanie’s life. I like that things unfold organically, and that there doesn’t seem to be any real rush to finish the story or make an important point. Judy Blume has a talent for making the everyday seem interesting and for giving girls positive fictional role models for navigating early adolescence. I could relate completely to Stephanie, and to most of her experiences, and the fun of reading the book was really just getting to spend time with a character I really liked. It was like checking back in with an old friend after twenty years and finding she hasn’t changed a bit.

Just As Long As We’re Together is one of the tamer Blume novels, and I think it’s appropriate for girls as young as eight or nine. There is also a sequel, Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, and both books have been combined into one volume entitled BFF, which has a much more updated cover than my old paperback edition. Despite some of the outdated references, I think the issues explored in this book are still relevant to today’s tween audience, and Blume can be trusted to handle them honestly and authentically.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review: Lulu and the Cat in the Bag by Hilary McKay (2013)

Lulu might love her animals, but her grandmother, Nan, who is staying with Lulu and her cousin Mellie while their parents take a trip, does not feel the same way. When the girls find a bag on the front porch in which someone has left a marigold-colored cat, Nan is adamant that the cat must not come in the house. But Lulu can never abandon an animal in need, and she is sure that with a little time and persistence, she can convince Nan to love – and maybe even keep – the adorable stray.

The true testament to the quality of these books is that I, who am not an animal lover, keep coming back to them and loving them from beginning to end. I enjoyed watching Lulu's antics with her found duck egg in her classroom at school. I loved her relationship with the dog she found on the beach during vacation. And I am just as pleased by this story about the cat she finds at home, and how she comes to care for it.

It's not just the subject matter that makes this series a success – it is McKay's way of getting inside the mind of her main character and her talent for describing her characters' thoughts and interactions. I love her description of Nan as “”little and snappy and quick and kind” and the way she depicts the cat: “A glow-in-the-dark orange cat with eyes like lime-green sweets. Paws like beanbags. A tail like a fat feather duster.” These simple, yet beautiful, sentences stick with readers and paint clear pictures in their minds. McKay has mastered the important art of writing sentences beginning readers can decode without sacrificing the beauty of the language.

Lulu and the Cat in the Bag is another wonderful installment to the Lulu series that is sure to charm established fans and drum up some new ones. Recommend it to cat lovers, and to any little girl who wants to make a brand-new fictional friend.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky (2013)

At a girls’ school in Sydney, Australia one beautiful afternoon in the late 1960s, a group of girls go with their teacher, Miss Renshaw, to the gardens, supposedly to write poems. While there, Miss Renshaw invites them to talk with the gardener, a conscientious objector named Morgan, who is himself a poet. Morgan leads the girls and Miss Renshaw into a nearby cave, supposedly to explore aboriginal paintings. The girls come out of the cave, but Miss Renshaw never reappears. Forever linked by their teacher’s disappearance, the eleven girls in Miss Renshaw’s class struggle to make sense of her fate, even years later when they finish their time at school.

There is no real way to capture the haunting beauty of this book in a simple synopsis. While the plot is significant, what makes this book remarkable is the beauty of the language and the author’s eerie, otherworldly tone. I was with the girls in every moment of the story. I could envision every moment, from their innocent gathering under the tree with Morgan, to the loss of one of the girls’ hats on the hike to the cave. Later, when they return to school, I felt as though I could hear the footsteps of teachers and administrators climbing the stairs to Miss Renshaw’s classroom. I could see their concerned faces, and feel the guilt the girls felt as they were torn between keeping a secret and helping to possibly save their teacher. The book took over all of my senses, and I felt like I was swimming in it, enjoying wave upon wave of its gorgeous prose and psychologically compelling storyline.

Adult readers might find that Miss Renshaw is similar in some ways to Miss Jean Brodie from the Muriel Spark novella and the film based on it. Indeed, I imagined Maggie Smith in the role of Miss Renshaw almost the entire time I was reading, and though the content of this story is not as mature, Miss Renshaw and Miss Brodie are both equally unsettling figures. I actually think The Golden Day is such a sophisticated novel that adults can enjoy it just as much as kids. Though the characters are roughly the equivalent of fourth graders for most of the story, I think the best audience for the book is actually slightly older. Middle school readers, especially, will be drawn to the creepy mood of the story, and the moral implications of Miss Renshaw’s behavior. I think this would be an interesting book to read aloud, or to discuss in book clubs. When I finished the book myself, I instantly wanted to know other readers’ opinions on it, and I suspect young readers will feel the same way - especially given the story’s unexpected and ambiguous conclusion.

The Golden Day is one of the best books I’ve read in 2013, and it’s likely to stick with me for a long time to come. Though it’s not eligible to win the Newbery because the author is not a U.S. resident, it is just as distinguished as any book that has won Newbery recognition, and I recommend it very highly to readers from grade 5 to adulthood.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Review: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (1994)

If you had asked me in 1995 (when I was 12) what my favorite book was, the answer most likely would have been Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Though I think I only read it once, I remember just falling in love with it, and even now, it’s a book I identify as a favorite when kids ask me what books I loved as a kid. Surprisingly, despite my devotion to the book for nearly 20 years, when I sat down to think about it, I didn’t have very many memories of it at all. I remembered the main character’s name, Salamanca Tree Hiddle, and that she and her grandparents are on a road trip to find Salamanca’s mother, and that they call Sal their “chickabiddy,” but these are basically the only details my mind held onto. I’d forgotten that the road trip is only half the story, and that Salamanca actually narrates another story as she travels with her grandparents. The tale is that of her friend, Phoebe Winterbottom, Phoebe’s mother, and their involvement with an apparent lunatic.

Two things about this re-reading of a childhood favorite struck me right away:
  1. I didn’t enjoy the story itself as much.
  2. I appreciated the quality of the writing more.
There is a lot of metaphor at work in this book, which I understood much more easily as an experienced adult reader. While I remember liking the sentiment of not judging someone until “you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins,” I never realized the many ways Sal does just that throughout the book. Sal not only takes the same literal trip her mother took from Kentucky to Idaho, she also learns to feel empathy for Mrs. Cadaver, her father, her grandparents, Phoebe Winterbottom, and even Phoebe’s mother. I don’t think I could have articulated all of that as a seventh grader, even if I internalized it, and it impressed me how well Creech weaves together the various parts of this story. I especially liked the parallels between Sal’s mom leaving home and Phoebe’s mom leaving home.

The story itself also seems more predictable to me now, possibly because I read and analyze so many children’s books. I didn’t remember the details of the plot, but as each event unfolded, I could see where things were going. I also think I am just a more careful reader now than I ever was as a kid, because my child self was shocked to learn that Sal’s mother is dead, but my adult self picked it up early on, the first time Sal says her mother is “resting peacefully.” I can’t tell whether the author intends for the reader to know this information early in the story or not - but it was interesting how obvious it was to me now and how clueless I was back then.

Re-reading this book was kind of a personal let-down because the story didn’t inspire the same strong sense of excitement I remember from back in the 90s, but without regard for my nostalgia, I think the story still holds up very well. As Newbery winners go, it’s one of the more readable stories, and I think kids are still drawn to this book - and Creech’s writing in general - even as we approach the 20-year mark since Walk Two Moons was first published.I doubt this is a book I’ll feel any need to revisit again, but I’m glad to have a new perspective on what was once my favorite book in the world.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: The View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts (1975)

Rob's older sister, Darcy, is getting married, and everyone in the household is caught up in the preparations. Wanting to stay out of the way, Rob climbs into the cherry tree between his house and the house of the lady next door, Mrs. Calloway. While there, he overhears Mrs. Calloway talking with a man, and the next thing he knows, she's been pushed out the window and sent to her death! Rob is absolutely sure of what he has seen, but when he reports the dead body to his family, everyone believes he is inventing the murder story to make things more interesting. The police then declare the death accidental. But the killer knows that Rob speaks the truth about what he has witnessed, and now Rob's life is in danger, too!

I am pretty sure I read this book as a kid, because the title and author have both stuck with me for a long time, but reading it this summer felt a lot like reading it for the first time. I think some of the memories I might have associated with this story are actually of another book by Willo Davis Roberts, Babysitting is a Dangerous Job, because there was almost nothing at all familiar about this book, even though I kept expecting to recognize something. At some point, I will need to read the other one to see if it sparks anymore memories.

While I remember this as being a highly suspenseful book with a great twist at the end, it isn't really. For an adult reader who is familiar with the mystery genre, this story is actually fairly straightforward, and it isn't difficult to predict who the killer will turn out to be. Because the story is told in the third person, the reader never fully experiences Rob's fear as he is shot at and nearly poisoned. The situations that unfold once the killer starts trying to attack Rob are scary, but the reader is distanced from the main action because he watches it from the outside. I imagine the reason for this distance might be a desire to protect young readers from getting too upset by the story, but for me, it took away from the overall drama of the book.

Willo Davis Roberts was a household name for my sister and me during the brief window of time when we both read middle grade books, and I'm pleased to see that many of her books are still in print and still available in my local libraries. That said, without any particular sense of nostalgia associated with it, this book fell flat for me, and I was a bit disappointed that I didn't have the feeling of satisfaction at the end that I so clearly remember from childhood.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: After Iris by Natasha Farrant (2013)

Three years ago this December, Blue's twin sister, Iris, died in an accident, and nothing has been the same since. Blue's parents pack their work schedules with lots of international travel so that they don't have to be home. Flora, Blue's older sister, has developed a flair for the dramatic, complete with colorful hair dyes and a new boyfriend. The younger siblings, Jas and Twig, like their new Bosnian au pair, Zoran, but they find him an unacceptable replacement for the constant presence of their mom and dad. And Blue has become a shadow, hiding behind her video camera and observing the world, but rarely engaging with her classmates, or the friends who knew her when Iris was alive. Something has to change, and everyone knows it, but who will make the first move?

When I first heard about this book, I was drawn to it, but also wary. I tend to avoid "death books" because they often upset me far more than they should, causing me to lose sleep and feel generally uncomfortable for a long time after I finish them. I was worried that this book would take place quite literally "after Iris," thinking that perhaps the story might even begin with her death. My expectations, as it turns out, were quite shortsighted, and what I found in this book was not morbid despair, but a hopeful optimism, as Blue and her family slowly learn how to move forward with their lives without forgetting the person they loved and lost.

This is a beautifully written middle grade debut, which stands out because of its unique writing style, its quirky characters, and its focus not just on losing a sibling, but on coming together as a family. The chapters alternate between Blue's video diary, which includes transcripts of various moments she has caught on film, and her written commentary on her family, friends, and school life. Blue is a quiet, introspective character, but her subdued personality is complemented wonderfully by the big personalities of the rest of the kids in her family. Though the main plot is always about Blue trying to integrate back into her life in the absence of her twin, subplots about a community theater production, Zoran's own troubled past, and the younger siblings' rats provide action, drama and humor where otherwise Blue herself is very passive.

The family in the story - as well as the author herself- are British, and at least partly because of that, this book kept reminding me of Hilary McKay's novels about the Casson family. The only Casson story I've read myself is Saffy's Angel, in which Saffy learns she is adopted, and I noticed a lot of similarities between Saffy and Blue, from their clueless parents to their own pain and isolation. The relationship between Blue and Flora is also reminiscent of the sisterly relationship among the girls in the Sisters Club books. The blurb on Goodreads also draws comparisons between After Iris and The Penderwicks, but I'm not sure Penderwicks readers, who are used to light neighborhood adventures, would necessarily be drawn to this deeper story about love, loss, and moving on.

All in all, though it is difficult to describe this quiet novel, it is definitely worth reading and sharing with sophisticated readers of middle grade realistic fiction in grades 4 to 8.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Book Review: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (1983)

When I first decided I would spend my summer re-reading books I originally read in childhood Dear Mr. Henshaw was one of the first titles I thought of. I know that I read it, because I think I read almost every Beverly Cleary book my library had on its shelves when I was a kid, but I doubt I was much older than 8 when I last looked at it, and my memories were very, very vague. All I knew for sure was that the main character’s name is Leigh, his parents are divorced, and his favorite author is a man named Mr. Henshaw, to whom he writes letters. But it turns out that there is quite a bit more to the story than that!

Leigh begins writing to Mr. Henshaw in second grade after he does a book report about one of his books. Leigh proceeds to use the same book for repeated assignments as he rises from grades two to six, and he continues writing to Mr. Henshaw, both to ask him interview questions for his book reports, and to share things about his own life. After a while, Leigh realizes it might make more sense to keep a diary instead of mailing letters to Mr. Henshaw all the time, and it is here that he records the details of the events in his life, such as a classmate routinely stealing from his lunchbox, and his struggle to cope with his truck driver dad’s long absences.

I have always loved Beverly Cleary, but I have a newfound respect for her skills as a writer after reading this, her sole Newbery medal winner. I am so used to associating her with the Ramona books that I expected this book to have a similar tone and style. It surprised me to realize how different Leigh is from Ramona, in terms of personality, life experiences, and even sense of humor. Dear Mr. Henshaw takes place in a totally different world from the adventures on Klickitat Street, and it showcases Cleary’s ability to tell different types of stories about all different types of kids.

In addition to speaking truthfully to the issues facing a child of divorced parents where one parent is often far away, Cleary also provides a great literary hero for the bookish boys of the world who love books and aspire to write themselves. By creating such a believable main character with all the concerns of a real eleven-year-old boy and giving that boy an interest in reading she promotes reading to a traditionally reluctant population without alienating or lecturing them.

As a kid, it bothered me that Mr. Henshaw’s letters were not part of this book, and that we never really get to know the author who has so enchanted Leigh. As an adult, that didn’t bother me at all, and I actually appreciated that Mr. Henshaw is never given a chance to either upstage Leigh, or to disappoint the reader by not living up to the hype Leigh creates surrounding him. I do like that Leigh eventually meets an author who knows Mr. Henshaw, because that gave us a little glimmer of what the man must be like, but I really think it would have ruined the story to have Mr. Henshaw himself actually appear. I felt much better seeing Leigh’s dad make an appearance instead.

Dear Mr. Henshaw is a natural read-alike for so many popular books these days. Leigh Botts kept a diary long before Greg Heffley, Big Nate, and Nikki Maxwell made it cool, and in my opinion, his is still the best. If you haven’t read Dear Mr. Henshaw since childhood, I highly recommend revisiting it. And don’t forget to share it with the kids in your life, too!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reading Through History: The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson (2008)

With World War II about to begin, Tally Hamilton, a doctor’s daughter, leaves her home in London to attend Delderton Hall, a progressive boarding school in the British countryside. While there, she becomes aware of the brave king of a small nation called Bergania, who has refused to give in to Hitler’s demands, and of his young son, Prince Karil. When Tally and some of her classmates are later invited to a folk dancing festival in Bergania, she devises a plan for them to be able to participate so that she might have the chance of experiencing this country firsthand. Unexpected circumstances lead to her actually meeting the prince himself, and when the king is assassinated, Tally finds that she and her friends might be Karil’s only chance to escape from the Nazis and avoid being sent to prison.

This middle grade novel truly offers something for everyone. It is part school story and part adventure, filled with both the daily activities of British schoolchildren and moments of true danger and suspense. The writing is beautifully descriptive, and each of the characters, no matter how minor, has a fully developed personality and backstory that in some way contributes to the larger picture. The adult characters are just as interesting as the kids, and the relationships Tally develops with her teachers are some of my favorites of the entire book. Though Bergania is not a real country, it comes perfectly to life in Ibbotson’s details. I especially enjoyed the significance of The Dragonfly Pool, the secret respite for which the book is named, which is visited by several of the characters in times of emotional distress at various points throughout the book.

Though this not a fantasy novel, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Harry Potter series. The boarding school environment obviously made me think of Hogwarts, and many of the teachers easily matched up with Harry Potter counterparts. The secrecy and urgency surrounding Karil’s escape from Nazi-occupied Bergania remind me of the efforts of Harry’s friends to protect him from Voldemort. Even Karil’s time spent in his grandfather’s house had the same suffocating and desperate feeling as Harry’s summers on Privet Drive. Though The Dragonfly Pool lacks the magical elements of Harry Potter, I still think it is an excellent read-alike for the series, and one that might be overlooked by kids without a bit of a booktalk from an adult.

The Dragonfly Pool is one of my favorites of all the books I’ve read so far this year, and I’m looking forward to reading more from Eva Ibbotson. I also loved the voice of the audiobook narrator, Patricia Conelly, and I would highly recommend listening to this book just to hear the way she reads it. The story is great, but the combination of the great writing and Conelly’s perfect performance make the audiobook an absolute treat.